By Junyang Chai, Contributor
It was supposed to be a relaxing Friday night for me when the Bataclan attack happened last year. I was taking a break from studying and working during my Brussels study abroad program, just having dinner with my new noona — the Korean word for elder sister — Jiwon, in a Korean restaurant that evening. Eating and laughing, I did not notice my phone vibrating or the BBC news notification appearing on my phone’s lock screen. I had no idea that while I was having fun talking to my new lawyer friend about our experience studying and working in Europe, something terrible was happening just 300 kilometers away. I went to another party hosted by my friend, a journalist of the Xinhua News Agency, after the dinner. While I was taking the bus, I saw the news on my phone, which said something like, “Hostage Crisis Happening in a Paris Theater.” I did not pay any attention to this news because my impression was that most hostage crises could be handled pretty successfully, just like in the movies. “They will be alright,” I thought to myself.
I only learned how bad it really was when I was helping my friend clean up the mess left by the party in her apartment. I was surprised when her phone rang at almost 3 a.m. I knew something must have gone wrong when I saw the smile freeze on her face. I could not believe it when she told me that what had happened at the Bataclan Theatre was a terrorist attack, and that those terrorists were shooting the audience with machine guns without any intention to negotiate for anything. I was more shocked when she told me that Bataclan was not the only spot under attack, but there was also a series of attacks happening at the same time. She told me that the French president had ordered the border shut down and had declared a state of emergency in the country. My mind went blank for a second, and then I began to try to remember everyone I knew who was in Paris. I began to call and text every one of them. I realized that Carsyn and Chelsey, two Furman students I was studying abroad with, went to Paris to visit the Disney Park that morning. Although I am not really a Christian, I have to admit that I was saying “God bless that they are safe” in my heart while I was writing to Carsyn. I was so relieved to receive the texts saying they were safe. All I could say to her was “Please be safe. We are all waiting for you to come home.” Feeling so powerless and anxious, I knew that night was going to be the longest night for me in Brussels.
That was the first time I felt terrorism so close to me. I was too young to understand what 9/11 was when the Twin Towers fell down. Growing up in China, I always felt that terrorism was something far away from where I was living. I was wrong. Terrorism is something that threatens everyone, all the time. The fact that I was forced to think about what terrorism is, and what Islam has to do with it, made me feel very uncomfortable, because my education and upbringing tells me to not judge a person by his or her religion. Maybe I was too much of an idealist to realize that people around me have been racially and religiously profiling others for a long time, but this attack really made me look at this topic seriously. No, I do not think Islam equates to terrorism, but that might be what ISIS wants the world to believe and that might be why they keep trying to launch attacks like the one in Paris.
On March 11, 2004, Al Qaeda planned and directed the infamous Madrid Train Bombings and killed almost 200 people. Three days after the bombing, the Spanish Prime Minister Aznar Lopez and the Partido Popular he led lost the election to the Parti Socialiste Ouvrier Espagnol, which was against the Prime Minister’s military operation in Iraq. Soon after the new government took power, Spain withdrew its military from the Middle Eastern country.
In this case, Al Qaeda certainly reached its goal: to retaliate against Spain for sending troops to Iraq and to force the Spanish government to withdraw its forces. They won. But does this mean people everywhere will give in to terrorism because terrorists create fear? According to political scientists Eric D. Gould’s and Esteban Klor’s research, once terrorism attacks reach a certain degree of violence, people begin to want to show strength against terrorism, and they vote for governments that strongly oppose the attacks. However, in the case of the Paris attacks, what ISIS was seeking is not as clear as what Al Qaeda wanted in 2004. Indeed, while the terrorist propaganda that ISIS used successfully aroused the radical feelings of many people living under its occupation, and even attracted new young devotees, it also incited a mood of anti-Islamism in Europe and other parts of the world. This could be exactly what ISIS wanted, because the European Union policy towards migration and refugees from Syria has been rather mild, causing ISIS to lose people living under its control. The Paris attack successfully hindered the process of refugees being welcomed into European society, and made the European public fear Muslims and the doctrines of Islam. Whenever people in Europe speak of Islam and connect it to terrorism, it is harder for the refugees to be accepted into these societies.
The Paris attacks during Nov. 13 last year hit everyone, and they hit everyone hard. Soon after the Paris attacks, the Belgian government increased its security level to four out of four, which means that the Belgian authorities had concrete information about possible attacks and that there were imminent threats. Police and soldiers were all over the streets of Brussels, and people were afraid to go outside of their homes. The Grand Place square that always used to be crowded with visitors became empty and silent.
A week after the attack, more than half of my Furman friends studying abroad with me in Brussels decided to leave Europe early and go home. I know that the goal of terrorism was to plant the seed of fear in all citizens, making them afraid to live their normal lives. So I told myself that I would not give in to terrorism, and I would keep going to class and work as normal, before Furman decided to end the Brussels program for the remainder of the semester. Although it is a pity that my Brussels experience had to end this way, I understand Furman’s concern for our safety, and I appreciated Dr. Nelsen and Dr. Pierce’s efforts to make sure everyone got home safely. It might be too big of a feat for me to answer how Europe can solve terrorism and the refugee crisis, but I know it has to be done with fortitude and compassion. The European citizens I know are stronger than terrorists, and human nature to love and understand each other is always stronger than terrorism. Peace is not only something we should pray for, but something we should strive for. I deeply believe that terrorism will not end the process of European integration; the sound of Ode to Joy and the bright blue flag of the European Union shall continue to hover over the sky of the European continent.